Remarks by President William R. Brody
University-wide Commencement Exercises
The Johns Hopkins University
Thursday, May 20 | Homewood Field | 9:15 a.m.
[Prepared text; not checked against delivery]
To our honorary degree recipients and our new members of the Society of Scholars, to our Trustees and alumni, faculty and staff, to our parents, family members and friends, but most of all, to our brand new graduates, I bring greetings on behalf of all of Johns Hopkins University.
One of the distinct pleasures of being president of a great university like Johns Hopkins is the opportunity it affords me to travel across the country — and literally all over the world — to meet our friends and alumni, who are so often leaders in fields ranging from biological genetics to musical semantics.
Quite often, on these occasions, I'm asked to speak, and I flattered myself that I was getting pretty good at it.
That is, until this past week, when I ran into a faculty member who told me how happy she was that I would once again speak at commencement. "Oh it really is much better this way," she assured me. "In the old days we had speakers that would go on and on for an hour and never say a thing. You're able to do that in just 15 minutes."
This morning I shall try to accomplish this in ten.
About a week ago, CBS News anchor Charles Osgood was in Baltimore. He came here to film a segment for his Sunday morning television show, during which he wanted to revisit, on camera, the city where he had lived from 1939 to 1946 — from the time when he was about age 6 to 13. In those years Mr. Osgood's family lived in the Ashburton neighborhood of Baltimore, where Charlie, as everyone called him, attended elementary school, followed a Triple A baseball team called the Orioles, and had a paper route. During that time he also learned to play the piano by taking lessons at the Peabody Prep, and so on this return visit he brought his camera crew to film at the Johns Hopkins Peabody Institute, where he even played a piano duet with director Bob Sirota.
The segment Charles Osgood filmed at the Peabody and around his old hometown of Baltimore is slated to run on CBS this Sunday morning, May 23rd. It coincides with the recent release of his childhood memoir, Defending Baltimore Against Enemy Attack, a look back at one year — 1942 — when he was nine years old.
For Americans, 1942 was the year the Second World War came home, and the changes that occurred were enormous. Charles Osgood remembers planting vegetables for the war effort, and helping to collect scrap metal and scrap rubber, old newspapers and even cans of fat. He writes: "It has been a long time since the army has needed old inner tubes,... but the spirit of the American war effort during World War II was so explosive that it even turned city people into home-front farmers, creating what were called victory gardens in our own backyards."
Mr. Osgood's memoir is a personal glimpse back to a very different time in America. And it manages to convey the author's sense of what he feels is truly important, mostly by the stories he chooses not to tell. After a long life in the public eye, during which he won three Emmy awards, earned himself a place in the Radio Hall of Fame, made an ample living and had the opportunity to travel widely and meet some of his most famous contemporaries, Mr. Osgood chose to write instead about planting a victory garden and collecting scrap metal. In 1942 he was making his own small, nine-year-old's contribution to the war effort. It was, he says, a rich time in America's history. It was a time when everyone wanted to contribute to a common need and support a shared goal. It was a time of giving back.
There is always a tendency to paint a golden patina over the past, and this is especially true of personal memoirs. After all, in our youth we are more eager, more energetic, and more optimistic — not to mention thinner, faster, healthier, and we had better hair. Small wonder the past looks so good.
Nonetheless, I cannot help wondering if Mr. Osgood's memory of 1942 isn't essentially correct. It was a time of giving back, of widespread individual sacrifice for a common good. And by choosing to paint this particular picture, he is drawing a deliberate contrast to today.
Is this critique, we must wonder, justified? There are some numbers to suggest that perhaps it is.
In terms of dollars, for instance, we seem to be giving less and less. We Americans have long prided ourselves on the tremendous generosity we typically display toward charitable causes of all kinds. Individual Americans do in fact give, on average, twice as much of their income to their houses of worship and favorite charities as the next most generous nation. And in recent years, charitable organizations overall have reported record numbers of dollars received.
But if we dig down we discover that those record gifts are largely the result of the prosperity effect — there are record numbers of dollars being given because the economy and our national wealth have grown so tremendously. In fact, giving as a percentage of income is down — lower than it has been in 40 years. In recent years Americans gave more dollars, but we gave a lesser percent of our personal income. One example — though by no means the only example — of this decline is measured in the charitable giving to the thousands of United Way organizations across the country. As a fraction of national income, Americans are giving to United Way at less than half the level we did in 1960.
Americans confirm this trend when polled. In the first years of the 1980s, during the worst economic recession since the Great Depression, about half of all Americans reported having made a contribution to a charity within the past month. By the middle of the 1990s, during the most prolonged economic boom in the postwar period, only one in three said they had given to charity in the previous 30 days. As a nation we've been getting richer and richer — and we've been giving a smaller and smaller share of it away.
There are many more ways to give than by writing a check, of course. At the core of our system of self-government there has always been a strong reliance on voluntary associations of citizens coming together to do everything from running baseball leagues to raising money to fight cancer.
Alexis de Tocqueville commented that Americans "are forever forming associations" after his visit to this country in 1832, and for more than 150 years since then, we have proved him right. Our system of justice depends upon citizen juries, and the political legitimacy of our leaders depends upon voter turnout orchestrated by partisan political associations. But here too, the numbers are cause for concern.
Last month, the Baltimore Sun revealed that every day Baltimore Circuit Court officials summon 800 residents to the fill the jury pool and feel lucky if 250 of those summoned actually appear. In Philadelphia and Dallas, less than a third of jurors summoned report for duty. Two years ago in Shelby, North Carolina, sheriff's deputies handed out summons to shoppers at the local Wal-Mart Superstore in a desperate effort to fill out a jury pool.
The decline in voter turnout and political involvement in our nation is well documented. In the 1990s Americans were about half as likely to volunteer for a political candidate or attend a political rally as they were just 20 years earlier. And during that same twenty year period the number of Americans who reported attending just one public meeting on town or school affairs within the past 12 months declined by 40 percent.
All these numbers may indicate to some that the season of giving is past, and that Americans are no longer willing to sow what future generations will reap. The spirit of 1942 has become a sepia-toned memory, no longer relevant to the hectic, demanding and complicated world of the twenty-first century.
But this morning I want to offer my own personal response to those who claim it's no longer necessary — or even possible — to give back. Just three words: don't believe it.
Giving back is every bit as important today as it was in 1942. And it will be as necessary in 2042 as it is today.
When the September 11th attacks occurred, across America people's first response was to try to give back. We all remember the long lines of people waiting patiently to give blood that — sadly — was never needed. So many people tried to help feed the rescue workers that soon city officials had to say please — no more food. Auto workers built replacement fire engines and schools offered scholarships, and a flood — a tidal wave — of money inundated the Red Cross and other relief agencies. People wanted to give.
Clearly, the desire to give back has not gone away. But in the rush of our lives — filled with cell phones and pagers and e-mail and the constant buzz of activity — it can be difficult to know how to give in a way that is both efficacious and meaningful. As charitable and non-profit agencies have grown more professional, they have also become more impersonal. What prevents many of us from giving is the feeling that our contribution is so small as to be almost meaningless.
Next Saturday, a score of Johns Hopkins students will depart this campus on a three-month, 4,000-mile bicycle tour across the United States. Their trip is an adventure that will raise money for Hope Lodge, a residence for out-of-town cancer patients and their families seeking treatment at Johns Hopkins. This is the third annual Hopkins bike trek across America, and it will end in August, at the Golden Gate Bridge.
What an exciting prospect — the thought of bicycling across this country. I suspect there are more than a few of us here this morning who wish we had time and youth enough to do it ourselves. But this trip represents a culmination of giving. All year long, these students have been regular visitors at Hope Lodge, bringing homemade dinners and desserts, spending time with out-of-town patients who were sick and lonely and frightened, even helping to set up and take down a holiday tree in the community room. Their visits, said one patient, were like a breath of fresh air.
Certainly, these students have been giving back. But if you ask, they will tell you they have received every bit as much as they have given.
So often, it is the small acts of personal giving that mean the most. At the end of last year, we learned that professor of biological chemistry Peter Agre had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. A Nobel prize confers a kind of celebrity, and recipients are quickly overwhelmed with requests to deliver speeches and papers, join boards and foundations, even make endorsements and support political causes. Dr. Agre has instead used his newfound fame to give back in a very personal and meaningful way.
In his Nobel acceptance speech, Dr. Agre talked about the transformative power of education, and the difference a teacher can make in students' lives. "Early in the life of every scientist," he said, "the child's first interest was sparked by a teacher." And since that speech, despite the demands of his research and the innumerable requests for his time, Dr. Agre has been making opportunities to give back in a unique way. He's been taking his message of the importance of teachers in his own life into Baltimore's public schools and other venues to advocate on teachers' behalf. He tells his audience: Look at how important good teachers were in my own life and in what I have been able to achieve. What you do for your students is extraordinary, and I am here today to say thank you. Your contributions are not only vitally important; they are also deeply appreciated.
Another example of giving back: one day the novelist Tom Clancy received a fan letter written on behalf of six-and-a-half year old Kyle Haydock by the boy's grandfather. He told Clancy that young Kyle liked his stories, and they were helping the boy endure treatment for an aggressive form of cancer. Clancy wrote a letter back, and soon a correspondence developed. Despite publishing deadlines and movie deals and the pressures of a hugely successful career, Clancy found time to visit Kyle. They became friends, and even took a trip to Disney World together.
Less than two years from the time of the original letter, Kyle died from his disease. But what Tom Clancy gave to Kyle Haydock and his family cannot be measured. "Kyle was my little buddy," he later wrote, "not a distant abstraction at all, a real kid, my son's age, bright and funny and perceptive," and he went on to reflect on the meaning of the time they spent together: "Every adult," he came to realize, "in a real sense is parent to every child."
And as is so often the case, Tom Clancy's decision to give has had a multiplier effect, in his own life and beyond. Now an honorary chair and spokesperson for a group that raises money to fight childhood cancers, Clancy has even funded a pediatric oncology professorship here at Hopkins, and has named it in memory of Kyle Haydock, his young friend.
Tom Clancy's example has led others to join in this effort. Giving is contagious. Gifts inspire other givers. There are parents-yet-to-be who one day will learn their child has cancer, but will hear their physician say: "Don't worry — we know we can beat it." Those words — the most beautiful imaginable to a parent — will be thanks to what Tom Clancy has given, and what he has inspired others to give.
This morning we are celebrating something you have earned by hard work and studious application. You have earned the right to call yourselves Johns Hopkins graduates. That is a notable achievement, and you have every right to be proud. I hope you and your family will celebrate this achievement all day long.
Tomorrow begins the rest of your life, and as you embark upon this great adventure, I want to leave you with a request. Though at this moment it may seem out of place, starting tomorrow I want to ask you to give back to Johns Hopkins.
This is not a plea for money. The greatest gift you can give back to Johns Hopkins is your personal integrity, hard work and the fruits of your discoveries offered freely to others to make a better world. I am asking that you give the knowledge you have gained here to the world on behalf of Johns Hopkins. Give of yourselves. When you do, I have no doubt, great things will come to us all.
Thank you, and to all of our graduates, Godspeed.
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